One of the most obvious behaviours that sets my five-year old son apart from other children, is what we have always called his “happy dance”: When he is excited or very happy, instead of simply laughing or smiling, he will flap both of his forearms up and down very fast, stamp both of his feet as he rocks his body side to side, and hum. Sometimes he’ll do this while he runs back and forwards, sometimes he’ll just do it on the spot. The more excited he is, the more exaggerated the movements and louder the hum, and the longer it will go on.
Since we’d seen him growing up doing this dance, we thought nothing of it, except how wonderful it was that he was so happy. But as he got older it became obvious his peers weren’t acting in anything like the same manner, and would stare at him and avoid him once he got into this state. I knew something was definitely wrong by the time other parents of the same aged children started to ask me what he was doing, and whether he was doing it because he was angry. At one stage I was smiling at my boy doing his happy dance, and suddenly realised every other child and parent in the area was staring in a confused or disapproving manner.
Coming from an autistic child, this sort of behaviour is typically called “stimming“, or “self-stimulation”. How to deal with it, and whether to deal with it at all, is one of the controversies within the autistic community. Our initial feeling about it as parents, was that it was how he expressed his happiness, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so it was fine. His therapists pointed out to us early on that his stimming would mark him out as different from his peers and therefore was a socially undesirable behaviour that would have to be eventually addressed and removed. The ways in which they thought this could be achieved varied from therapist to therapist.
His speech therapist figured it would be corrected by providing words (we’d tell him to say “I am happy”) to replace the stimming, since it was an attemp at communication. His occupational therapist figured it was a behaviour used to deal with sensory issues, so lots of deep pressure (essentially tight hugging across his whole body) would help reduce the stimming. Other methods of fixing the behaviour were proposed by other therapists too – such as using distraction when he started stimming to try to move him on from the behaviour (and consequently on from what was making him so happy at the time).
“Replacing” the behaviour with words, works very briefly in the same way that giving him any distraction at the time works – because what it is doing is taking his attention off what is making him so happy, and therefore actually curtailing his happiness rather than “replacing the behaviour”. Those methods have never had an impact on his stimming beyond that interruption at that exact time; they didn’t universalize to stop his stimming more generally.
The deep pressure had no impact at all on his stimming, because it is based on what would appear to be a false understanding of the function of his happy dance – he’s not stimming because he is having sensory issues at the time (though this appears to be true of the stimming of some autistic children), rather he is only stimming because he is happy. Deep pressure does work very well with my son when he is distraught or overwhelmed, but a happy dance does not fall into this category.
The most upsetting attempt to curtail this socially undesirable behaviour happened at an ABA play-group for autistic preschoolers. ABA continues to be a controversial technique for dealing with autistic children, though it is gaining increasing mainstream acceptance. I found the ABA preschool group very useful in many ways, in particular it introduced me to other parents going through the same issues, it helped me better understand autism generally, and it gave me some useful methods for encouraging my son to interact with other people and his world. But their one main teaching that I could never feel OK about, was the efforts to completely stamp out my son’s stimming:
Once my son had relaxed enough to enjoy the group – he went from constant tantrums there to eventually actively enjoying the activities – he was happy enough to start stimming. For example, he would be listening to a book being read to everyone and he would start doing his happy dance in his chair. At the time I was so relieved to see him enjoying himself, and thought the ABA therapists there would be accepting of this typically autistic behaviour. Instead they would touch and hold him until he stopped stimming, and tell me to do the same. I was quite heart-broken and upset when it became clear what they intended to do each time, because he didn’t like being touched, and it distracted from what had made him happy, so it would either make him sad or even lead to a meltdown. It felt like he was being punished for being happy.
I told myself at the time that this was like the other aspects of what they had taught us – I just had to trust them and their experience. But it never felt right, and again my son never universalized it; it didn’t reduce his stimming behaviour in general.
We continued to not be able to control his stimming, despite trying the variety of methods taught to us by “experts”. And I remained in two hearts and minds about whether it was the right thing to do, even if the methods we had been given to “fix” it had worked. It was also apparent that a lot of the advice we were receiving about how and why to stop his stimming, stemmed from theories that didn’t seem to match the fact that he would only stim when he was happy.
And then I came across something that made everything click into place. Finally we had the explanation which matched our experiences with our son, and made sense within the developmental delays that characterise autism. It’s too long to repeat it all here, and I want to strongly encourage parents with children who stim, to read the entire piece for themselves. So here is the link. Click it. Read it. It’s important. Essentially it explains that the stimming my son is using, is a result of his developmental delays, and that they will reduce as he progresses – specifically as his neural connectivity matures. It also deals with other reasons for stimming, which apply to other behaviours my son displays besides his most obvious happy dance stim.
I now better understand his stimming, and have real hope for its eventual cessation. I’m left with the problem of helping him to fit into a classroom situation next year – his happy dance is likely to otherwise interfere with his and other students’ learning. But already I know my son understands that different situations call for different behaviours, and that he is very likely to learn that you’re not meant to happy dance at school. To reinforce this and still allow him the outlet for his excitement, I do intend to let him happy dance in the safe and accepting environment of his home.
We all have socially undesirable behaviours (nose-picking, crotch-scratching, knuckle-cracking, horse-like laughs, a tendency to use fists instead of words), some of which we do in public, some of which we do only in our homes. If the principal socially undesirable behaviour my son exhibits is doing an energetic dance when he gets happy, well you know, I think that’s one of the lesser evils of autism. It might even be a better world if we all did a little more happy dancing, and a little less trying to squash other people’s expressions of joy.